Capital Times columnist Mike Lucas, the longtime color analyst for University of Wisconsin football radio broadcasts, offers his insight on the Badgers' 20-19 victory over Arizona State on Saturday:
The NHL has a tradition of awarding three stars to the players with the biggest impact in each game, and today you could make a statistical argument for Scott Tolzien, Lance Kendricks and John Clay.
However, if you're going to be honest about little things or little plays winning tight games, you'd have to also name Dez Southward, Shelton Johnson and Jay Valai.
The ability at the end of the first half to avoid disaster on a long kickoff return was due in large part to two players — Southward for slowing down the kick returner and then Johnson making the play. If either one of those two players had hesitated at all, or thought to themselves for a split second that they weren't going to be a part of the play, they wouldn't have been. And yet they were able to slow down and tackle Arizona State's Kyle Middlebrooks.
Can you imagine what would have been running through the heads of those players in the locker room if they had to sit with that thought until the start of the third quarter?
And then of course, there was the blocked extra point where it was executed to perfection. They doubled the outside blocker, or wing blocker; Fenelus goes outside, and now that blocker has to make a split-second decision. Based on football fundamentals, you never let anyone cut inside, but he did. He takes Fenelus, creating an opening for Valai to just hop inside, which he did, and makes the block.
So, those little things that the Badgers were able to do, in concert with Arizona State missing some scoring chances — touchdown scoring chances — in the first half really kept things tight.
Not only the long runback at the end of the first half, but the two consecutive plays in the red zone as well. George Bell had the touchdown in his hands on a second-down play, but juggled it and Aaron Henry came over and made sure he didn't catch it. That's a sure score. He lost his focus and concentration, maybe fearing the collision. The following play, he couldn't get his foot down, couldn't tap it in bounds. It was close. So that was a touchdown that went away.
You look at Arizona State last year, and they didn't make those types of plays then, either, and it cost them a lot of games.
Q: Was there a defining play for the UW offense today?
A: Maybe the single biggest play of the game was the throwback pass to Kendricks that picked up the first down en route to the go-ahead score. They had executed it in the first half and it was resurrected on third and short after the Badgers were stopped on two previous possessions on third-and-short. Vontaze Burfict, the Arizona State linebacker, did a heck of a job on the first play, submarining UW guard Kevin Zeitler and causing a pile that Clay ran into. They tried to run a similar play on that follow-up possession and were stopped again.
The third time, they went back to a play they worked hard on in the preseason during the practices we were allowed to watch. They influenced the defense, making it look like a run to the right, which you have to respect — they even pulled left guard John Moffitt, who then turns around in a pass-block mode — and then they deliver the throwback. Kendricks lines up on the right side of the formation, runs the shallow cross right to left.
It was wide open in the first half, and wide open on the most critical play of the game.
Q: How impressive was Kendricks' performance, considering the lack of other weapons at receiver?
A: Arizona State had to come into the game thinking they were going to take away Kendricks, with UW being without Nick Toon and, to a lesser degree, David Gilreath. That had to be the No. 1 objective of the defense. And yet he was still able to come up with the seven catches for 131 yards and a score.
He's seeing different coverages this year than he was last year, and still he is responding.
Q: How concerned are you about Chris Borland's shoulder injury?
A: I think it's of great concern, because it doesn't look like he might be right. Today, on the play where he made the tackle, his arm got away from the body and that seems to again be where he suffers the most stress to the shoulder. I don't know how you can prevent that. I don't know if you just use him in situations, or — as Bret Bielema mentioned in his press conference — you seriously consider redshirting him. That'll be determined by what they see if they examine him over the weekend. If the doctors say, ‘Look, this is going to happen all the time,' then you have to give some thought to coming back next year, and if you need another surgery on the labrum or not. Nobody knows right now, so guessing would be unfair to him.
And so you just hope now that they get good news from him. It'd be a shame for someone who loves the game as much as he does, to not be able to play to the level that he wants to.
Q: How did the Badgers adjust after Borland left the game?
A: He's a unique football player. You can't draw one up on the board like him, because he's special. He poses so many different problems for an offense, especially big tackles. They just don't have anybody else like that. You can go to just about any team in the country and you aren't going to find somebody like him, with his competitiveness, his skill level and his low center of gravity — all the things that make him Chris Borland.
Q: Did you think the defensive secondary held up fairly well today?
Lucas: Not bad, given that it's a tough offense to play against; you're not going to get a lot of pressure on Sun Devils quarterback Steven Threet because he gets the ball out of his hands so quickly. But late in the game, the Badgers started to get knockdowns. That takes a toll; it's like a boxer. You keep getting hit, you're not quite as alert the next time. In one series, they had three straight knockdowns on Threet. That affects his confidence, or maybe he wants to get rid of the ball sooner the next time. So, (defensive end) Louis Nzegwu helped in that regard. But they're going to have to patch and adjust throughout the season if they're not going to have Borland on a regular basis. They don't have any answer for that.
Q: Did UW cornerback Niles Brinkley get away with a penalty in the end zone on the third-down pass intended for Arizona State's T.J. Simpson? The Sun Devils had to settle for a field goal and a 13-13 tie.
Lucas: It did appear to be a bump. I thought he was there early — should have been pass interference.
Q: Someone who made a much-needed but quieter contribution today was Jared Abbrederis, the receiver from Wautoma who caught three passes for 35 yards and also ran two end-arounds for 19 yards. Your impressions?
Lucas: For a walk-on who was recruited to be the scout team quarterback, he looked like he belonged out there today. Nobody runs the fly, sprint, receiver speed sweep better than David Gilreath, but Abbrederis posed a threat running it. He looked bouncy out there. That term is used a lot for basketball players, but it looked like he had a little bounce when he was playing, when he was catching the ball — which is good. It just bodes well for him and his future here.